The Pittsburgh Penguins ended the NHL's 2014-15 season with a 2-0 victory over the last place Buffalo Sabres, clinching the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot by a single point and narrowly avoiding disaster. Including the victory over the Sabres, the Penguins won just four of their last 15 games. Failure to qualify for the postseason after such a collapse would've left many questioning the future of this Penguins team.
We love to use the term "choke" to refer to a team falling apart when success looked all but inevitable. Crazy things can happen in the world of sports and they often do, but witnessing a team's fortunes change from good to bad so quickly and in such a disastrous manner is always mesmerizing. Many factors - luck, injuries, ill-timed decisions - must come into play for something so perfectly catastrophic to take place.
Often times one team's collapse is accompanied by another team's triumph. In this case, it was the Ottawa Senators who almost cost the Penguins a playoff spot. The Senators finished the regular season with a 23-4-4 run to close a 14 point deficit in the standings and reach the postseason. At the end of the day, the Boston Bruins ended up as the victims, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007. While we can praise a team for their resilience and determination in pulling off a great comeback, we often get more joy from ridiculing the team that allowed it to happen in the first place. A team's failure is like a train wreck. We all know it's terrible, but we still want to watch.
The Pittsburgh Penguins may have avoided being referred to as chokers - at least for the time being - but many other teams weren't so lucky. Here are 15 instances in which the Heimlich Maneuver could've come in handy:
6 Bruins post record season, lose in Final
It's hard to refer to this year's Boston Bruins team that missed the playoffs as chokers because they were never really secure in a playoff spot all season, but the 1930 incarnation was a different story. The Bruins finished the season with a 38-5-1 record and didn't lose two games in a row all season. Their .875 winning percentage remains the highest in NHL history. However, when it came time for their best of three Stanley Cup Final series with the Montreal Canadiens, the Bruins were swept in two games.
14. Maple Leafs lose control of the 18-wheeler
The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2011-12 season having not made the playoff since 2004, but at Christmas time the team remained in contention and was playing well enough that head coach Ron Wilson was rewarded with a Christmas morning contract extension. By March 2nd Wilson was out of a job. After a 1-9-1 slump that saw the team fall to 12th in the Eastern Conference, Wilson was fired and replaced with Randy Carlyle. General Manager Brian Burke compared the team's collapse to "an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff". Of course, a more heartbreaking collapse, was yet to come.
13. Senators great start, terrible finish
While a resurgence from the Ottawa Senators almost cost the Penguins a playoff spot this season, the Senators are no strangers to collapses of their own. Entering the 2007-08 season they were considered Stanley Cup contenders, having made a trip to the Final the previous spring. After a 15-2 start to the season the Senators looked to be well on their way to top spot in the Eastern Conference. The team proceeded to lose 26 of their next 47 games and head coach John Paddock was fired. The Senators finished the season as the 8th seed and went on to be swept in the first round. By whom? The Pittsburgh Penguins of course, who avenged their loss to the Sens the year before.
5 Red Wings finish first, lose in first round
The Detroit Red Wings won back to back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998 and may have gone down in history as one of the league's greatest dynasties if not for playoff disappointments a few years earlier, particularly in the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After finishing first in the Western Conference, the Red Wings met the 8th place San Jose Sharks, who were making their first playoff appearance in franchise history, in the opening round. Despite being outshot 218–153, the pesky Sharks won the series in seven games.
4 Blues feasted on by Sharks
Six years after the Red Wings lost that playoff series to the San Jose Sharks, the St. Louis Blues found themselves in a similar position. The Blues finished the 1999-00 season with 114 points and won the President's Trophy and were obvious favorites to beat the Sharks. However, the Blues quickly found themselves down 3-1. The Blues would comeback to tie the series and force a seventh game, which they proceeded to lose 3-1, including Owen Nolan's game winner on a shot from the neutral zone.
10. Red Wings get trapped
One year after losing to the Sharks, the Red Wings had another tremendous regular season and won the President's Trophy. They would then dominate the first three rounds of the playoffs going 12-2 against the Stars, Sharks, and Blackhawks. In a Stanley Cup Final meeting with the New Jersey Devils the Red Wings were the heavy favourites. However, they had no answer for the Devils trapping team and were swept in four games. After such a dominant season, it's crazy how it got away from the Wings so quickly.
9. Senators sweep regular season, get swept in playoffs
The 2007-08 season wasn't the only time the Ottawa Senators choked. Several of the Senators teams from the early 2000s could've made this list, but the 2001 team stands out above the rest. After finishing the 2000-01 season second in the Eastern Conference, the Senators were set for a matchup with the seventh seeded Toronto Maple Leafs - a team they had won all five regular season games against - and were the heavy favourites. Instead the Leafs swept the series in four games, with the Senators failing to score a single goal until the final minutes of the third period of game three.
3 "It was 4-1!"
The 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs were a team that probably wouldn't have made the playoffs if not for the season being shortened by a lockout. In their first postseason appearance in nine years the Leafs went down 3-1 to the Boston Bruins. The Leafs rallied behind the stellar play of goaltender James Reimer and forced a seventh game. Midway through the third period the Leafs led 4-1 and looked to be headed to the second round. The Bruins cut the lead to 4-2 and with 1:22 remaining Milan Lucic pulled the team within one. Shortly after Patrice Bergeron tied the game and by the time overtime arrived, their was little doubt who would win. Bergeron scored the overtime winner and the Leafs misery continued.
7. Philadelphia Flyers "choking situation"
The 1996-97 Philadelphia Flyers, led by the Legion of Doom line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg, finished the regular season with 103 points and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, and New York Rangers on their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Detroit Red Wings. After the Red Wings jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, Flyers head coach Terry Murray said the team was in a "choking situation". The Red Wings won game four to sweep the series and Murray was fired a few days later. It's funny how the Wings had constantly disappointed as a favourite, then flourished as an underdog against Philly.
6. A circus in Montreal
The Montreal Maroons finished the 1927-28 season with the NHL's best record. When they met the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final they had the extra advantage of playing every game of the best of five series in Montreal, due to the circus being in New York. If that wasn't enough, an eye injury took Rangers goaltender Lorne Chabot out in the second game of the series. The Maroons lost Game 2 after 44-year-old Rangers coach Lester Patrick put himself between the pipes and stopped 18 of 19 shots in place of Chabot. The Rangers then signed Joe Miller, goaltender for the New York Americans, and beat the Maroons in five games.
5. Sharks can't usurp the Kings
The 1994 and 2000 Sharks teams may have pulled off upsets, but lately the team has regularly been on the other side of playoff disappointment. Much like the Ottawa Senators of the early 2000s, the San Jose Sharks are a team that always seem to unravel come playoff time. In 2014 that unraveling reached a new level. In their first round playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings, the Sharks outscored the Kings 17-8 in the first three games to take a 3-0 lead. The Kings came back to tie the series and with one final chance to close out the series, the Sharks lost game seven 5-1 to the eventual Cup champions.
4. Penguins can't fly past Islanders
The Penguins may not have completely choked this year, but the same can't be said for 1975. After completing the 1974-75 season with their first winning record in franchise history the Penguins made their third postseason appearance. In their second round matchup with the up and coming New York Islanders, Pittsburgh quickly went up 3-0. The Islanders stormed back and after scoring 14 goals in the first three games, the Penguins scored just three goals in the next four games, including being shut out 1-0 in Game 7 at home.
2 Red Wings ultimate collapse
After jumping out to a 3-0 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, the Detroit Red Wings had a chance to sweep the series at home. They took a 2-0 lead midway through the second period of game four, but the Leafs mounted a comeback to win the game 4-3. The Leafs then won the next two games to force a Game 7. With a 1-0 lead heading into the third period, the Red Wings would once again blow the lead, losing 3-1. Detroit became the first team in NHL history to lose a series when leading 3-0 and remain the only team in history to do it in the Stanley Cup Final.
2. Bruins double choke
Their 1930 debacle may not have been that historic - anyone can lose two in a row - but their 2010 one certainly was. After going up 3-0 on the Philadelphia Flyers in their second round matchup, the Bruins allowed the Flyers - sparked by the return of Simon Gagne - back into the series. After the Flyers forced a seventh game, the Bruins looked to be avoiding disaster when they took a 3-0 lead within 15 minutes. The Flyers rallied once again winning 4-3. The Bruins became the first team in 19 years to blow a three goal lead in game seven and the first team 35 years to lose a series when leading 3-0. No team managed to do BOTH those things in one night.
1 Oilers allow a "Miracle"
The young Edmonton Oilers, led by Gretzky, Messier, and company finished the 1981-82 season first in the Clarence Campbell Conference and 48 points ahead of their first round opponents, the Los Angeles Kings. After splitting the first two games in the best of five series, the Oilers came out flying in game three, jumping out to a 5-0 lead. In what has become known as "The Miracle on Manchester", the Kings scored five third period goals, including a tying goal from Steve Bozek with just five seconds to play. Daryl Evans provided the overtime heroics 2:35 into the extra frame and the choke job was complete. The Kings would go on to win the series in five games. The Oilers lost to a team who finished 48 points below them in the regular season. Such a gap will never happen again in this day and age of the NHL, so this one will stand the test of time as no.1 on our list.